The Open Mind of Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan was almost unique in his day for being both a respected scientist and a talented broadcaster. As an astrophysicist and planetary scientist he was advisor to NASA and over the course of his career published over 600 scientific papers. His TV programmes such as Cosmos (1980) brought the mysteries of the universe to millions, but this was not the usual boffin for whom the questions of ‘what it’s all about’ can only be answered by science.

Sagan’s interests in philosophy, spirituality, UFOs (and, it recently came to light, dope-smoking) has cemented his legend as an open-minded seeker.

Some of the visual effects in this programme, made before digital computer graphics and the images of the Hubble space telescope, may look a little outdated (or perhaps  endearingly ‘vintage’), but Sagan’s story telling is masterly and his sense of wonder, infectious.

35 minutes in, Sagan turns his attention to the spiritual traditions of India. Walking barefoot around a temple, he discusses the parallels between modern astrophysics and ancient Hindu philosophies, which he describes as a “a premonition of modern cosmological ideas”.

Modern science is very rarely presented in the context of humanity’s long search for meaning. But as Sagan points out here, astronomers are only trying to do what religion has always done: “The big bang is our modern scientific creation myth”.

Walking the Fog

fog park nightI walked through the park at night in the fog, past the faint white ghosts floating on the lake – the sleeping swans. As I walked I brought my attention to every sense. I have realised the word ‘attention’ works much better for me than ‘mindfulness’, which sounds like a conundrum from the off. We all know what attention is, and we can direct it where it’s needed.

The trees were dripping their foggy wetness on my face, the river was rushing in the distance. The dark grey of night fog was impenetrable. I brought my attention to its void without fear, accepting its blankness like a mirror of no-mind.

Every so often, voices in the distance would push through the fog, or footsteps would emerge behind me – people still need to empty their dogs no matter what the weather. But I resented the presence of humanity encroaching on my dark wet solitude.

As I walked toward the long straight path out of the park I breathed consciously while reciting a version of Thich Nhat Hanh’s breathing mantra: “Breathing in, I am the body…breathing out, I am the body”. I have realised that centring in the body is the most reliable way of finding presence, for me. Presence – one of Eckhart Tolle’s favourite words. I haven’t visited his teaching much over the last year, having spent time exploring some its sources, such as the many Buddhist doctrines, which are insightful but don’t massage my heart in the way Eckhart can.

Walking up the path, centred in my body, I felt that my ‘mental and emotional complex’ – a phrase that spontaneously occurred to me, maybe derived from the ‘military/industrial complex’ in the USA! – was hanging in front of me like a hardened shield or something attached to the front of me or hanging around my neck. I could see that it wasn’t me; and every ratty little bit of frustration or anxiety that was still buzzing around was happening inside of IT, not me. Since my time away from Eckhart, I could see that I had slipped back into identification with it.

I sat down on the wall outside the park, and fully stayed with where I was, not in my shield, with all the battles it wants to fight and all the enemies it sees. I wasn’t concerned with the cars driving past me, not imagining their drivers’ opinion of me: thief, wierdo, alcoholic – how I normally worry that I appear when I let myself wander and drift. I was content to watch it all like a child – the headlights swishing through the fog as the leaves floated down from the majestic trees. I was thoroughly in the moment. That elusive NOW that we never actually leave.

Fathers and Sons

Shiva – male Hindu deity

For reasons too personal to go into here, it is very important to me to regain some sense of confidence and pride in being a male. My reconnection with the natural world and a sense of wildness in nature are part of that. I have recently been reading Robert Bly’s “Iron John – Men and Masculinity”, which takes its name from a German fairytale that tells of a young prince who is mentored by a ‘wild man’ in a forest.

Bly’s thesis is that myths and folk tales can offer clues and paradigms to help modern men reorient themselves in a culture which has lost touch with its mythic identity. Bly spent years researching traditional societies and their mythologies; he believes that industrial societies lack the initiation processes needed, particularly for boys to become men.

Although I found parts of the book hard to grasp because of the poetical nature of Bly’s musings, some sections were riveting to me. Particularly his reflections on fathers and sons:

“When a father and son do spend long hours together…a substance almost like food passes from the older body to the younger…I think a physical exchange takes place, as if some substance was passing directly to the cells. The father gives this food at a level far below consciousness…(the son’s) cells receive some knowledge of what an adult masculine body is. The younger body learns at what frequency the masculine body vibrates. It begins to grasp the song that adult male cells sing, and how the charming, elegant, lonely, courageous, half-shamed male molecules dance.



During the long months spent in the mother’s body, his body got well-tuned to female frequencies…Now, standing next to the father, as they repair arrowheads, or repair ploughs, or wash pistons in gasoline, or care for birthing animals, the sons body has the chance to retune. Slowly, over months or years, the sons body-strings begin to resonate to the to the harsh, sometimes demanding, testily humorous, irreverent, impatient, opinionated, forward-driving, silence loving older masculine body. Both male and female cells carry marvellous music, but the son needs to resonate to the masculine frequency as well as the female frequency.”

fathers 2


Bly believes this masculine learning process has been disastrously disrupted since industrialisation:

“…by the middle of the twentieth century in Europe and North America a massive change had taken place: the father was working, but the son could not see him working. Throughout the ancient hunters societies, which apparently lasted thousands of years…and the subsequent agricultural and craft societies, father and sons worked and lived together…in all these societies the son characteristically saw his father working at all times of the day and all seasons of the year. When the son no longer sees that, what happens?…a hole appears in the son’s psyche. When the son does not see his father’s workplace, or what he produces, does he imagine his father to be a hero, a fighter for good, a saint, or a white knight?…demons move into that empty place – demons of suspicion. The demons, invisible but talkative, encourage suspicion of all older men. Such suspicion effects a breaking of the community of old and young men.”

I’m sure many men will relate to that.

Fresh Feet in the Forest

Today I went to a place that is rather special for me: Freshfields forest near Formby beach. I’ve been feeling a deep need to reconnect with wildness. Inspired by a friend I did it without shoes.


As I enter the forest I spontaneously greet the trees with a call that echoes across the undulating landscape – this forest is on a gently descending hillside created by sand dunes that have become covered by pines. The trees are quite widely spaced, letting dappled sunlight in to the forest floor. Moss coats the ground, and brambles and ferns grow thickly in the hollows.

I find a high point to look down on the hillocks of dunes. There is a stillness here. Only the occasional bird calI can be heard. I sit down with my coat for a blanket. It’s late September but this forest is still looking lush – sunlight twinkles off a million leaves and butterflies flirt here and there.

I lie down and take my shoes and socks off. These feet are amazed at the shock of fresh air.

I sit for a long time. Nothing is needed in this immersive re-connection. I am bathed in warm and green. For my ears, there is only the faint rustle of the pines in the merest breath of breeze, the occasional bird call, and the acceptable intrusion of a small propeller aeroplane overhead. And there is something else – the silence behind it all. Just being there is my meditation. Occasionally the distant ghost of something like a thought seeps in to my consciousness, but finds no purchase and melts away.

Lying at ground level, I find I am becoming part of the landscape for invertebrates. All around me tiny spiders and ants are making their way through the micro-forest of moss and shoots and continuing their journeys over my hands and feet, up my back and into my hair.

I set off across the moss-covered dunes, savouring the cool natural carpet underfoot. My feet bend and flex according the contours of the ground as they were designed to; gripping the slopes as I walk rather than just landing on them. It’s like my feet are remembering something that they hardly ever had a chance to learn in the first place. Walking barefoot is a natural sensory experience that we deprive ourselves of since – who knows, a thousand years of footwear? Until very recently in much of the world, shoes were a rarity and a luxury. The connection with the earth taken for granted by millennia of human beings has within a few generations been obstructed by these “coffins for the feet”.

Of course, walking across the landscape is easy if you have the leathery soles developed from everyday  walking. Mine are lily-white, baby soft feet. Locked up and sweaty inside shoes for forty-odd years they have barely aged. But my enthusiasm knows no bounds. Scrambling across the dunes I reconnect with abandon, grinning as I wince at the sharp sticks and brambles. A bloody scratch appears between my toes. I wonder how soon my soles will remember their true calling and toughen up into primal leather.

I stop on a gentle slope covered with pristine moss. The pines end here the sun floods in. I take out sesame seeds and carrot sticks and look out on the dense scrub that slopes down to the beach. I start to hear tiny impacts on the ground around me. Something is dropping from the tree above, small chips of vegetation. I reach for one; it looks like a fragment of nut casing. I look up and see a tail twitching far above – dark red against the sky. Soon after, the squirrel discards the core of a pine cone, then another.

After lying, then meditating I experience a strong breakthrough into the profound present moment. Everything is suddenly more sharp and real.

I curl myself around the trunk of a pine and don’t move for ten minutes. Hugging a tree one is aware of a uniquely still energy. I have heard that if you put your ear close to a tree you can sometimes hear it growing. The sap actually makes a noise as it travels up the truck. I can’t hear anything but the blood flowing through my ears. These life forms are living on a very different timescale to us. They can teach us, but not in a way we can understand.

I have no idea what time it is but the sun is getting low in the sky and the breeze becoming fresher. Small birds start to appear in the trees around me, chatting to each other as they find their roosting spots.

Freshfields, I hope you don’t mind that I took some pine cones and sampled your blackberries. I’ll be back soon.

Waiting For the Mantra


Nowadays it seems everyone is getting spiritual. Meditation and mindfulness in particular are booming, with courses and classes available all over every city. We tend to think of meditation as a silent practice, but there is one meditation method which is anything but silent.  

Mantras are repeated phrases, chanted or sung as part of various religions to induce a feeling of connection with the divine.

The person chanting a mantra isn’t thinking about anything; the chanting stops the flow of thoughts and allows them to find a beautiful, calm place inside and a feeling of ‘oneness’ with the universe.

This approach has had a small but significant influence on rock and pop culture.

In the late sixties, George Harrison became interested in Hinduism, and started to reflect it in his music with the Beatles and then in his solo work.

In “My Sweet Lord” from 1970, George celebrates…

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Eight New Ways…


I’d like to present an addition to the Noble Eightfold Path of buddhism.

As you may know, the original list, including “right speech” and “right livelihood” is a

set of reminders of how we can avoid creating suffering for ourselves and others…

The Additional Eightfold Path:

Right eating

Right shopping

Right housework

Right neighbourliness

Right partying

Right sex

Right transport

Right technology

Any comments?